Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The Need for Process and Crisis in Evangelism

Last weekend I was at a Study Day organized by the Colchester Episcopal Area, part of the Diocese of Chelmsford, on the topic of ‘Evangelism Without Tears’.
The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, observed that properly speaking, evangelism could well be ‘with tears’, but he gave a rousing introductory talk nevertheless.
Both he and subsequent contributors also rightly stressed the importance of ‘process’ in evangelism. Research shows that the average length time from first becoming aware of spiritual questions to full faith is from four to five years. Certainly this was true in my own experience. I have often said that it took me my first year at university to work out what a real Christian was and a further two years before I took the plunge of personal commitment. Many others would tell a similar story.
In the question-time at the end of the Study Day the matter of ‘process’ was again stressed. Some people, it was said, become believers ‘overnight’. For others it may happen much more gradually. And this is true. But there is a danger, I think, of representing ‘process’ and ‘crisis’ as exclusive alternatives, whereas in fact they need to be kept as complementary factors in the path to faith.
To return to my own example, the ‘process’ of conversion took three years. But there was also a ‘crisis’ — a day and an hour in which I quite consciously ‘became a Christian’. And in our thinking about evangelism, I would argue that we need to see the ‘crisis’ not as an alternative to, but as part of, the ‘process’.
Take, for example, the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. He was clearly a man on a journey in every sense. When we meet him, he had been up to Jerusalem and was on his way home with his souvenir scroll. But he clearly had not ‘arrived’ where God wanted him to be, for the Holy Spirit himself directed the evangelist Philip to meet with him and answer his question concerning Isaiah 53: “About whom is the prophet talking, himself or someone else?”
And it is important that we relate Philip’s response to our own practice. What would — or should — we say to someone to cause them to ask, “Here is water, what is to prevent me being baptized?”
Or again, what of Cornelius? Here is a man who is also ‘on a journey’, at least spiritually. Indeed, we might be tempted to say when we meet him at the beginning of Acts 10 that he has already ‘arrived’. His prayers and alms are already a memorial offering before God (10:4).
But once again, God clearly has other ideas, sending an angel to tell him to send for a man called Peter. And when we read in chapter 11 Peter’s re-telling of the story to the Jerusalem church, we learn an important detail about this vision that is actually not in chapter 10, for the angel told Cornelius that the man they would find at Joppa “will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved” (11:14).
Thus whatever we may make of the positive verdict pronounced on Cornelius in 10:4, we must concede that there is more. The process in his case must also include the crisis — a crisis which, in a real sense, can be called ‘salvation’.
And this raises two questions. First, does our understanding of ‘process’ evangelism include an adequate view of ‘crisis’? And secondly, what actually needs to be communicated at the point of ‘crisis’ in order for ‘salvation’ to result? To quote another example from Acts, what should we answer to the question of the Philippian jailer, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30) What must we say if we are to ‘speak the word of the Lord’ to others in a similar situation (16:32)?
In Acts 16, we are not actually told what Paul said to the jailer. In Acts 10, however, the descent of the Holy Spirit, and the subsequent sign of speaking in other languages, can reasonably be taken as signalling the point at which Cornelius and his household have heard enough. So when does the Spirit descend?
Peter has been rehearsing the events of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection. Yet still the Spirit is held back. And then he comes to these crucial words:
42 He [Jesus] commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:42-43)
Here, surely, we have the sine qua non of evangelism — that without which the gospel message is incomplete and without which faith has no suitable object.
Thus we may suggest that no matter what the process by which people become Christians, or how long it may take, it cannot be regarded as ended until they are essentially brought to this point: to believe the apostolic message that there is a coming judgement of the living and the dead and that the crucified, risen Jesus is the saviour from sin of all who believe in him, as testified to by the prophets.
You will notice — and some will doubtless take delight from the fact — that there is no explicit theory of the atonement put forward here. But one should not be too hasty. In Acts 8, for example, we have the reference to the prophetic testimony of Isaiah 53, which also includes important references to the nature of God’s work through the ‘suffering servant’:
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (vv 5-6)
Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and ... [to make] his life a guilt offering ... (v 10)
... my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. (v 11)
... he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. (v 12)
Steve Chalke writes concerning these verses,
I ... have no desire to become involved in a technical debate about how the cross works. As Scripture says ‘he was wounded for our transgressions, by his stripes we are healed’ (Isaiah 53:5), and for me that is enough.
Yet it would seem to me that the penal nature of God’s action and the substitutionary office of the servant makes a doctrine of ‘penal substitution’ hard to avoid. Nevertheless, we are saved by that work not by our right grasp of doctrine. It is sufficient to believe that, as another Apostle puts it, “Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3).
At the same time, however, it is vital to recognize not just the sufficiency of this faith but its necessity.
Paul asks the Galatian Christians, “Did you receive the Spirit [ie ‘were you saved’ cf Acts 11:14] by observing the law or by believing what you heard?” (Gal 3:2). The form of the question means he clearly expects the answer, “By believing what we heard.” But what was it they heard? The answer is, “the gospel”. And once again the emphasis in that ‘gospel’ is on the death of Christ on our behalf for our sins:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” 14 He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (Gal 3:13-14, NIV)
And here is another important point, for if hearing and believing this gospel message is the key to receiving the Spirit, then we must solemnly say that anyone who has not heard this and believed it, or who has heard it and has not believed it, has not received the Spirit.
Returning to my own example, I think this is the state I was in on the afternoon of that particular day in August 1971 when I opened up my copy of Journey Into Life and began to read what I had to do to be saved. In all my years of churchgoing, I had not really ‘heard’ the message that Jesus died for my sins and that I must believe and trust in him. And when I did hear it, through my Christian Union friends in my first year at University, I understood it, but did not want to do it.
What happened that afternoon was that I received the Spirit, although I didn’t understand it in those terms at the time!
This is not to make my experience normative. On the contrary, the normative pattern is found in Scripture. But what my experience shows is that when we follow that pattern we see its certain effects in the lives of those to whom it is applied.
As our own diocese gears itself up for a year of evangelistic effort in 2014, this is surely something that needs to be clearly understood. Evangelism is about more than a positive encounter with the church. And whilst ‘belonging’ may well precede ‘believing’ (indeed we see that all the time) it is no substitute for the latter.
Furthermore, it may be possible to have beliefs about Jesus which, whilst correct and sincere in themselves, are not a sufficient belief in Jesus to count for our salvation. There are some — indeed many — in our churches whose faith goes up to Acts 10:41 but has not encountered, or in some cases baulks at, Acts 10:42-43.
They rightly believe in Jesus who “went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him” (10:41). Yet the apostolic testimony, “he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead” and the message of the Scriptures that “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” is either unknown or, in some cases, unacceptable.
Evangelism is a challenging task. And yet as Stephen Cottrell observed on Saturday, it is the Great Commission of the Church. We are to go and make disciples, and anything which contributes to that is evangelistic — it is part of the process.
But the word ‘evangelism’ derives from the Greek word for our ‘news’ or ‘proclamation’ from God. And to engage in that task as the apostles did, we must proclaim what they did, which means bringing people to the point of ‘crisis’. Therefore we must proclaim to all that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and that all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rom 3:23-24). This is what we must make known, and this is what they must believe.
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  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Tim Keller describes the journey like going from Mexico to Canada.

    Some take their whole life, some fly there overnight, some cross the boarder with lots of formality or stress and some cross the boarder without realising it.

    However, one day they realise that they have woken up in Canada


  3. Is it possible to become a Christian (repent, believe, be indwelt by the Spirit, have the love of God spread abroad in your heart, turn from darkness to light) and not know it happened. Is such a change possible without a crisis? And surely this crisis must be conscious?

    I am troubled at the number of people who have no memory of a point of conversion; the most radical change possible happened to them and they have no knowledge of it.

    1. John

      Lets say than a man comes to the front of the Church. We pray with him, he is overcome with emotion and accepts God as his savior.

      Everyone cries and says it it is so lovely, he is saved.

      No he isn't. (90% of the time)

      He might now start his journey, or he might not.

      In Keller's example he has decided to leave Mexico.

      He may still decide to go back.

      He is not saved........yet.

      Usually his heart will still have a long journey ahead before he is saved.


  4. Phil, I would have thought most people journeying from Mexico to Canada would at least realize at some point they were in the United States and had therefore left Mexico.

    1. John

      Ah but....

      Leaving Mexico does not always mean they will ever get to Canada


  5. John, I certainly know people who would say they have 'always been a Christian' and can never remember a time they didn't believe, having been brought up in a Christian home. Personally I can't see any reason not to take that seriously, though I also know people brought up in Christian homes who did, nevertheless, have a 'crisis' moment.

    I am more concerned by the 'always been Christians' who may never have checked it out - either because they have not heard or do not otherwise know the 'full gospel'.

    The Protestant tradition varies, but as a testimony we look for 'confession' in word and deed - and can look for nothing more, as the truth is finally known only to God. But the essence of that confession is that Christ is Saviour from sin and Lord of life.

  6. John, the thing about the process of evangelism is that some Christians use the style of process called 'Incarnational' Christianity. Whereby as Christians 'we show Christ or be Christlike' to people. For them that is the Good News to a hurting world. I think as evangelicals we need to be crystal clear on what is the Good News. Otherwise we won't have anything New to say in the Marketplace. Having spent two and half months off during the summer, I looked into the revivals in the UK, particularly Wales. Revival broke out here in West Wales in Blaenannerch Chapel because the Holy Spirit brought people to a crisis through the Proclamation of The Gospel 'that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and that all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rom 3:23-24).'

    Richard Wood
    Aberporth, West Wales. Next to Blaenannerch.

    1. Hi Richard

      I live just outside Carmarthen

      The real question is where are the chapels now?

      In our village of 400 people used to have five chapels, one is left (with a service once a month), two are houses, one is a cowshed and another was demolished to make a new village hall.

      The bigger lesson for us is why did they die?


  7. I totally agree that both process and crisis are likely to be required, though I would tend to say that there may be a series of crises as faith deepens. This probably accounts for those who are cradle Christians, who cannot remember a specific moment, and yet who are very clear about their faith.

    And I think that we would do well to remember that Greek doesn't really distinguish between belief in terms of rational propositions and belief as trust. The real Christian (and I'm cautious about such an idea) must surely trust in the Eternal Trinity. And here I think the confession "Jesus is Lord" comes in. No one can say it except by the Spirit. So we don't need to look for speaking in tongues or other manifestations of the Spirit. But equally I would gloss that verse as "no one can say it and evidently mean it." And if we mean that Jesus is Lord, then that must indicate trust in him.

    And I would say we can say and mean that Jesus is Lord without committing to any propositional statements about faith/belief such as particular theories of the atonement (or any other particular doctrines).

    Perhaps we might say that the crisis makes us trust, and the next part of the process is working out why we trust.

    Just some thoughts to try out, not sure if they work.

    (And by the way, my viewing of particular posts has nothing to do with their titles, merely when I click on my bookmark)

  8. I think this all fine. But people need to define what the process is.

    Is it reason for God? Where Keller talks about times & places when/where most people had a Christian (ish) world view. Others where you painfully have to build it up (for an individual or community). So there is a process of understanding.

    I think some people think of process in purely sociological terms. For that matter, evangelism is just, getting people into Church. (yes, I know evangelicals have at times virtually ignored church, but you get the point)

  9. John R

    I know people too who have no memory of a conscious conversion. Many eminent and godly people seem to fit this category. However, it seems to me an anomaly. It neither squares with NT norms nor NT theology of conversion.

    Richard's point seems to me germane. What gospel do we preach? Do we preach repentance and faith? Or do we assume our audience are Christian? Do we, 'paedo-baptist or credo, educate our children in the faith as opposed to evangelizing them?

    I fear we have a generation who are largely nominal (in evangelicalism) because they really have little sense of the gospel working experientially in their lives. They have never felt real conviction of sin and so sin does not feature largely in their gospel (theoretically or functionally).

    1. John

      "They have never felt real conviction of sin and so sin does not feature largely in their gospel "

      And er Jesus died for......

      We are not saved by erradicating sin from our lives even if it were possible.

      Lots of godly people are as near to sin free as you can get.

      And deep down proud of it.


      I hope so, but doubt it.


  10. Hang on John T...

    How is bringing up our children as Christians different from teaching them the need for a very real faith and to repent. Surely bringing up children as covenant kids involves teaching them about the holiness of God, the magnitude of sin, the need of a saviour etc. etc.

    That isn't the same as treating them as, from birth as not belonging to the Church (belonging to Satan's kingdom) and being evangelised.

  11. Amen Darren.

    Re. John T's concern about people not feeling conviction of sin - well, perhaps a lack of searching legal preaching (not just teaching!) has a lot to do with it. I'd guess ministers are afraid to do this much for fear of being (inaccurately) labeled legalistic and not 'concentrating on the Gospel'. But they need to teach - powerfully - the whole counsel of God. "Search Jerusalem with candles and punish the apathetic!"

    Which BTW is why the job description for the vacancy John R posted just now, is deeply troubling for what I assume is a parish that thinks of itself as evangelical. Not one reference to the vital role of a transforming pulpit ministry - a man could meet all the listed criteria and still be a downright duff preacher.

    Please read this:


    1. "Which BTW is why the job description for the vacancy John R posted just now, is deeply troubling for what I assume is a parish that thinks of itself as evangelical. Not one reference to the vital role of a transforming pulpit ministry"

      Agreed, nice people only need apply!


  12. Pertinent and timely at a time when there is so much stuff going out on process and "incarnational" evangelism, "being Christ to the hurting world", that the need for proclamation of the message of sin and the Cross, and "crisis" when the Holy Spirit comes into a person, can be relegated.

    A man I had shared the Gospel with a number of times in recent years seemed to have come to that point of crisis when I showed him from a booklet two 'thrones', one with 'S' (self) on it and one with Christ. Which one represents his life, the self-directed or the Christ-directed one? He quickly said the former, so I thought the best response would be to lead him in the "sinner's prayer", after which I prayed for a work of the Spirit, that God knows how much my friend means the prayer. He then said "something happened", and change was evident from very soon after, including now realising something was wrong he previously thought was OK, and a hunger for understanding the Bible, and involvement in church life. I presume it's a matter of timing - another person said she wasn't "ready".

    This surely means we mustn't be afraid of experiences of the Holy Spirit, while not expecting a standard experience for everyone. And of course experiences aren’t the crucial thing. Rather it’s the change as a result of the incoming of the Holy Spirit, the change of orientation from 'self' to Christ as Lord and trust in the Cross alone for eternal salvation. Perhaps some evangelistic courses separate the work of the Holy Spirit from the Gospel message of sin and salvation taught earlier on the course, thus effectively making the experience, even speaking in tongues, the goal. Some of those experiences may be genuine conversions, but can they lead to other people being deceived, thinking they're OK because mentally agree with the earlier teaching on Jesus and the cross and then had an experience..? But maybe other courses need to give a bit more thought to the “crisis”, when the Holy Spirit enters?

  13. John

    "And here is another important point, for if hearing and believing this gospel message is the key to receiving the Spirit, then we must solemnly say that anyone who has not heard this and believed it, or who has heard it and has not believed it, has not received the Spirit."

    Nail on the head.


    We need to forget our fancy words and Theological gobbledgook.

    Christains seem to make up another silly word every day. There are plenty in the comments above. evangelicalism? incarnational? Sorry John / Philip but come on, how does this sort of insider language really help people?

    Oh.. Now I've got it!

    Speaking in tongues!


  14. The process is usually a series of crises.

  15. You might be right to be troubled by the job posting. BUT, if I were applying (which for a couple of obvious reasons I won't be), I'd give them the benefit of the doubt, but I'd want to ask lots of questions along those lines, ask to meet the PCC, that sort of thing, to be sure that everyone knew we were aiming for the same things.

  16. I suppose your reaction to the vacancy at St John's Elmswell depends on whether you fancy a challenge which might just also involve some struggles. A mate of mine is just taking on six non-evangelical parishes, which will doubtless stretch his abilities.

    Getting evangelicals into non-evangelical parishes, though, ought surely to be part of any evangelical strategy for the transformation of the denomination for the proclamation of the Gospel.

    1. Indeed John, but the text does refer to the church's "evangelical outlook" so it does seem to be a different kettle of fish. I really expected better than this from such.


  17. I'm tempted to ask you, John, how you would define a "non-evangelical" parish. Is it a non-Reform/FiF parish? Where do "New Wine" churches fit in this regard?
    I strongly agree with Philip who posted above (15 Feb. 19:14) who spoke about the person and work of the Holy Spirit involved with both process and crisis in the work of evangelism. In my book, the Holy Spirit is involved all the way through, from initial conviction of sin to final sanctification from sin. We are continually "being saved" from the ever-present pain, power and penalty of sin.
    Clearly, the ABC-designate and his wife believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to sanctify the imaginations of those of us who are willing to trust the Lord Jesus with our lives - see the video resource
    Mrs Welby said, in reference to her own testimony, that it was not so much about “knowing about Jesus” as “knowing Him” – a totally new experience for her.
    I am personally very encouraged by the fact that the new ABC’s experience and involvement of the Holy Spirit will affect both process and crisis in those in England ( + the rest of the UK and the world) journeying toward the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
    And Phil Roberts, there are Christians who value “speaking in tongues” within their own private devotions, of which I am one. Speaking in tongues is a gift of God through the Holy Spirit and therefore not to be belittled.
    Beryl Polden, Wirral

  18. Beryl,

    I doubt that many would describe New Wine churches as "non-Evangelical", even if they don't sign up to the whole package. Indeed I know a good number of Reform people who go the New Wine weeks. I wouldn't have thought many would include FiF as evangelical?

    Although I'm not charismatic as such, I did a Curacy in a New Wine church and I would have thought what John's talking about is a rather different order to someone like me, working in a church like that.

    Also, it's worth saying that for non-Charismatic Calvinists, the Holy Spirit is involved all the way too! Calvin was the Theologian of the Spirit! Something often over looked about Jonathan Edwards is that he was actually a ceassationist, yet you can't really accuse him of neglecting the work of the Spirit in his writings or his ministry. However I do know people who are VERY Charismatic, (so into tongues, prophecy, healings, etc. etc. in every service - & a particular understanding of those things), who do not have much room for the Holy Spirit in the ordo salutis, which seems to be all about the person being persuaded by other people (or a miracle that they witness), rather than the Spirit's internal work, as you rightly say, in convicting a person of sin but also taking the gospel word deep into their heart, convincing them, changing them, calling them, working on their will etc.

  19. Thanks for your comment on the Welsh scene Richard. I have been re-reading Eifion Evans's biography of the great Daniel Rowland, curate of Llangeitho and Nantcwnlle in the 18th century. He preached about heaven, hell, death and judgement and his hearers had no chance but to get off the fence. Gosh, it's hard to preach that sort of stuff, but if enough of us were loyal enough to Jesus to do it, who knows where it might end?
    Mike Keulemans